Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

  Henry VI’s cousin, Richard, Duke of York (Elizabeth of York’s grandfather), arguably had a better claim to the throne, being senior to Henry in descent from Edward III, but through the female line. York was wealthy, respected, experienced in warfare and government, and—unlike the King—the father of a large family with healthy sons. To begin with, York’s ambitions had not included a crown, but he was dismayed at the misrule of the court faction that controlled Henry VI, which was led by the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and Henry’s kinsman, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. York was determined to eliminate the endemic corruption and indiscriminate patronage that characterized their régime. In this, he had the support of his cousin and principal ally, the mighty Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who was to become Elizabeth’s godfather. Warwick was the archetypal English magnate, whose chief motivations were self-promotion and the acquisition of wealth. He was power-hungry, proud, ruthless, violent, and forceful, but a brave commander and very popular with the people of England. Unlike York, he had the common touch, coupled with lavish, open-handed hospitality. The splendor and extravagance of his household was renowned.

  By 1450 the Lancastrian government was bankrupt, milked dry by the court faction. Dissension festered, and the situation was exacerbated in 1453 when Henry VI lapsed into either catatonic schizophrenia or a depressive stupor. His incapacity put an end to any hope of unity between the opposing political factions. It brought Queen Margaret, with her poor understanding of English politics, to the forefront of power, and deprived the country of its head of state, removing the last brake on the rapaciousness of the court party. And while the King was comatose, Queen Margaret bore a son, Edward of Lancaster.

  Parliament nominated York as regent, and he began to tackle the vast task of reforming the administration. But he had not made much headway when Henry VI recovered his senses and reasserted his authority. The royal authority was back in the hands of a weak king debilitated by mental illness.

  Convinced that the Queen and her party were about to destroy him, York raised an army. The first battle in what later became known as the Wars of the Roses—a term coined by Sir Walter Scott, but which contemporaries called the Cousins’ Wars—took place at St. Albans in 1455, eleven years before Elizabeth’s birth. Somerset was killed, and York quickly reestablished his political supremacy. Resentment smoldered, and hostilities broke out again in 1459, with the Queen’s faction emerging victorious. But after York won a resounding victory at Northampton in 1460, the nature of the conflict changed.

  After decades of misrule, the English people were beginning to view Richard of York as a serious rival for Henry VI’s crown, and it was at this point that York openly laid claim to the throne and the Wars of the Roses became a dynastic struggle.

  A compromise was reached: Henry VI was to retain the crown for his lifetime, but would be succeeded by York. Queen Margaret, outraged at the disinheriting of her son, again went to war. In 1460, York and his second son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed at the Battle of Wakefield.

  York’s cause was immediately taken up by his capable nineteen-year-old son, Edward, Earl of March. In March 1461, having successfully routed the Lancastrians, March entered London in triumph and was proclaimed King Edward IV. One Londoner observed: “The commons love and adore him as if he were their God; the entire kingdom keeps holiday for the event.” Edward’s enemies remained at large, but later that month, after a decisive but bloody victory at the Battle of Towton, he emerged as the undoubted ruler of England. Queen Margaret fled to France with her son, and Henry VI remained in hiding until 1465, when he was captured and placed in honorable confinement in the Tower of London. By then, England was enjoying the fruits of firm government.

  Edward had not achieved power without the staunch help of his father’s ally, Warwick. Next to the King, Warwick was now the greatest man in England and Edward’s chief mainstay and supporter. For the first three years of the reign, he virtually controlled the government of the realm, carried along on a tide of popularity. Whenever he showed himself in public, attended by his customary train of six hundred liveried retainers, crowds would run to see him, crying, “Warwick! Warwick!” It seemed that God had “descended from the skies.”2

  “Warwick seems to me everything in this kingdom,” observed the Milanese ambassador,3 but although Edward IV relied on Warwick in many ways, he would not be ruled by him. This was not apparent to everyone, even Warwick himself, who certainly overestimated his influence over the King. Nor was it obvious to foreign observers, such as the citizen of Calais who wrote to King Louis XI of France: “They tell me that they have two rulers in England: Monsieur de Warwick, and another whose name I have forgotten.”4 The Milanese ambassador in France had already foreseen discord between the earl and his master.5

  Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, was a splendid figure of a king. Sir Thomas More described him as “princely to behold, of body mighty, strong and clean-made.” According to the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, who was commissioned by Henry VII to write a history of England, Edward was “broad-shouldered” and “his head and shoulders towered above those of nearly all other men.”6 His skeleton, discovered during excavations in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 1789, measured over six-foot-three, so he was unusually tall for his time. Above all he was “unusually handsome”7: the chronicler Philippe de Commines, a writer and diplomat who worked for Louis XI, remembered Edward as “the handsomest prince my eyes ever beheld.” His hair was brown,8 as it appears in portraits and in the strands found near his skull. According to the chronicler Olivier de la Marche, Edward “was a handsome prince and had style.”

  The young king was well aware of the effect his dazzling good looks had on people. He loved to show off his “fine stature,” displaying it to advantage in rich and revealingly cut clothes.9 By fifteenth-century standards, he was remarkably clean, having his head, legs, and feet washed every Saturday night, and sometimes more frequently.

  But it was not just good looks that made Edward IV a popular king. He excelled Henry VI in nearly every way, especially as a statesman and a general. He was a firm and resolute ruler, shrewd and astute, and had real ability and business acumen, as well as the willingness to apply himself. He was successful in his determination to restore the authority of the monarchy and make it an institution that once more inspired reverence and respect.

  Edward was “of sharp wit, high courage and retentive memory, diligent in doing his affairs, ready in perils, earnest and horrible to the enemy, and bountiful to his friends and acquaintances … Humanity was bred in him abundantly.” Handsome, affable, and accessible, he was also “given to bodily lust,” and consequently “would use himself more familiarly among private persons than the honor of his majesty required.” Edward’s chief vice was his sensuality, and his debaucheries were soon notorious. “He thought of nothing but upon women, and on that more than reason would, and on hunting, and on the comfort of his person.”10 Dominic Mancini, an Italian visitor to England, thought him “licentious in the extreme. It was said that he had been most insolent to numerous women after he had seduced them, for as soon as he had satisfied his lust, he abandoned the ladies, much against their will, to the other courtiers. He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried, the noble and the lowly. However, he took none by force. He overcame all by money and promises.” It was not long before lust would lead Edward into a situation that would have far-reaching consequences for himself and his children.

  “Now take heed what love may do!”11 All went well between the King and Warwick until 1464, when Edward—“led by blind affection and not by rule of reason”12—married an impoverished Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Wydeville, Lady Grey. The Wydevilles were an old established family in Northamptonshire, where they owned the manor of Grafton Regis. Elizabeth’s father, Sir Richard Wydeville, had boldly aspired to wed Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of Peter of Luxembourg, Count of St. Pol, and “of the blood of Charlemagne.” In 1433 she had m
ade a highly prestigious marriage with John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford (the younger brother of Henry V), who had governed France in the name of the infant Henry VI. Bedford had died in 1435, whereupon the childless Jacquetta inherited all his estates. With almost indecent haste, she married Richard Wydeville, a member of Bedford’s staff. Immediately Jacquetta’s French relations cut her off, despising Wydeville as a mere “simple knight,” and she was fined £1,000 [£469,350] by the English Council for remarrying without permission. But that scandal was long past now, and Wydeville had been raised to the peerage as Baron Rivers in 1448.

  Legend has it that Edward IV first encountered Elizabeth Wydeville under an oak tree in Whittlebury Forest, where she and her two young sons fell on their knees before him and she begged him to restore to her the lands of her late husband, Sir John Grey of Groby, who had been killed fighting for Henry VI.13 Sadly, there is no truth in the tale: Grey was never attainted, so his lands had not been confiscated. Even so, a big oak tree at Yardley Hill is still known as the Queen’s Oak.

  Elizabeth Wydeville was “a woman more of formal countenance than of excellent beauty, of sober demeanor, lovely looking and feminine smiling, neither too wanton nor too humble. Her tongue was so eloquent and her wit was pregnant.”14 She was “moderate of stature, well made and very wise.”15 Her portraits show a poised, elegant, blond woman with the shaven forehead fashionable at that time, a slender figure, and facial features that would be considered striking in any age.16 Elizabeth of York was to inherit her mother’s looks.

  Elizabeth Wydeville wasn’t interested in money or promises, but held out for marriage. Rumors abounded in the 1460s and beyond that she had refused to become Edward’s mistress, or had threatened to stab herself when he tried to rape her, or that he had held the dagger to her throat to force her to submit, or that her mother had used witchcraft to ensnare him. Whatever the tactics, they proved successful. The marriage took place in secret, probably after August 30, 1464. When it was made public that September, it provoked a furor. In an age in which kings married foreign princesses for political advantage, marrying for love was regarded as akin to insanity, and choosing the widow of a man who had fought for the King’s enemies was almost worse. Moreover no English king since the Norman conquest of 1066 had wed a commoner, one of his own subjects, and it was seen as scandalous that Edward had set aside all thought of duty and obligation to marry for love—and to marry beneath him.

  His mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, violently disapproved. She was the daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, by Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, fourth son of Edward III and founder of the House of Lancaster, by the mistress he later married, Katherine Swynford. Cecily was thus the great-granddaughter of King Edward III, and sufficiently conscious of her high lineage to have earned the nickname “Proud Cis.” In youth, they had called her “the Rose of Raby,” for she had been born and raised at Raby Castle, County Durham. Her marriage to Richard, Duke of York, seems to have been a happy one. The various locations of the births of their twelve children indicate that Cecily accompanied her husband on his many forays to France and on his travels in England. She had never remarried, and in later life would assume the habit of a Benedictine nun. Now, however, she proudly carried herself as if she were a queen, styling herself in letters “the rightful inheritor’s wife of the realm of England, the King’s mother, Duchess of York.”17 She did not take kindly to having a commoner for a daughter-in-law, and a later tale—probably without foundation—claims she was so furious that she offered to prove her son a bastard and thereby unfit to rule.18

  Warwick was especially angered by the King’s marriage. He had been negotiating for a French matrimonial alliance, and Edward had made him look a fool. Warwick, like other nobles, objected to Elizabeth Wydeville because “she was not the daughter of a duke or earl, but her mother, the Duchess of Bedford, had married a simple knight, so that though she [Elizabeth Wydeville] was the child of a duchess”—who was also a princess of the House of Luxembourg—“still she was no wife for him,”19 but an upstart. When Edward began advancing his Queen’s numerous relations, Warwick could hardly contain his “secret displeasure.”20

  The marriage was unpopular with many of the King’s subjects,21 and now the Wydeville queen was expecting a child, the arrival of which—especially if it was a son and heir—could only boost the pretensions of her faction. Moreover, “the King was assured of his physicians that the Queen was conceived with a prince, and especially of one named Master Dominic, by whose counsel great provision was ordained for the christening of the said Prince.”22 The birth of an heir with Wydeville blood was certain to lead to controversy in the future, as Elizabeth of York was to find out, to her cost.


  “The Most Illustrious Maid of York”

  The royal palace of Westminster extended along the Thames shore, southwest of the City of London. A royal residence had stood on this site opposite Westminster Abbey since the sainted King Edward the Confessor had rebuilt both in the eleventh century, and the magnificent Westminster Hall had been completed by William II in 1099; in the late fourteenth century, Richard II increased the height of its walls and added the splendid oak hammer-beam roof. The sprawling palace in which the Queen was to be confined was the work of successive medieval kings, and the chief seat of royal government until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1512. Parliament often met within its walls, usually in the Painted Chamber, the White Hall, or St. Stephen’s Chapel. Westminster Hall was used for state occasions and ceremonies, and also for coronation banquets. Daily, it was a hive of industry, housing the busy law courts and stalls selling books and other goods.

  The rambling old palace was much in need of upgrading, and Edward IV had set about converting part of it into new royal lodgings, which Elizabeth of York would come to know very well. They included a privy kitchen for the preparation of royal meals, a wardrobe for the storage of royal possessions, and something very traditional in royal domestic arrangements: separate ranges of private apartments for the King and Queen.

  The creation of a new “Queen’s side” for Elizabeth Wydeville, which was begun in 1464, may have come about because the King’s mother, the disapproving Cecily Neville, was living at court and appropriate accommodation was needed for both ladies. The apartments built for Queen Elizabeth included a withdrawing chamber and wardrobe; a great chamber would be added in 1482.1 It was in these new lodgings that the Queen was to bear her child.

  For married women in those days, pregnancy was often an annual event, with all the risks it entailed. Contraception was rudimentary and would not have been practiced by royal couples, for whom a large family meant sons to secure the succession and daughters to forge political marriage alliances. It was a son, naturally, that the King wanted, and although, by medieval custom, male physicians did not attend pregnant women, Dr. Dominic de Sirego, Elizabeth Wydeville’s physician, was determined to “be the first that should bring tidings to the King of the birth of the prince,” for messengers conveying such glad news often received “great thanks and reward.” Only women were allowed into the birth chamber, so when the Queen went into labor, Dr. Sirego had perforce to wait in the “second chamber.” The baby was a girl: “this year [1466], the eleventh day of the month of February, was Elizabeth, first child of King Edward, born at Westminster.”2 She was the first princess born to an English monarch in over a century.

  The waiting physician, hearing the child cry, “knocked or called secretly at the chamber door” and asked “what the Queen had,” whereupon her attendants, much amused, called back, “Whatsoever the Queen’s Grace hath here within, sure it is that a fool standeth there without!” Whereupon Dr. Sirego hastily “departed without seeing the King that time.”3

  That same month, “my Lady Princess” was baptized “with most solemnity” in a new font set up in St. Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster Palace by her kinsman, George Neville, Archbishop of York,4 just as if
she had been the desired prince. She was given her mother’s name; it was a happy coincidence that the Queen had a special devotion for St. Elizabeth.5 The name Elizabeth was not new in the royal line: it had been given to daughters of Henry I and Edward I, and to a granddaughter of Edward III. It had also been borne by Elizabeth de Burgh, the heiress who married Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second son), and brought the rich Ulster inheritance to the royal House of York.

  Tradition decreed that the King and Queen did not attend the christening, but Edward IV made it the occasion for a show of solidarity, even though the players were privately at odds or disapproved of his marriage. The baby princess’s sponsors were her grandmothers, the Duchesses of York and Bedford, and the Earl of Warwick. Walter Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Treasurer of England, received 1,000 marks [£152,250] for his diligence at the baptism, then was promptly told to resign his office to the Queen’s father, Lord Rivers.

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